Divination and Healing: Potent Vision/Singing Story, Healing Drum: Shamans and Storytellers of Turkic Siberia

By Harle, Peter | Western Folklore, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Divination and Healing: Potent Vision/Singing Story, Healing Drum: Shamans and Storytellers of Turkic Siberia


Harle, Peter, Western Folklore


Divination and Healing: Potent Vision. Edited by Michael Winkelman and Philip M. Peek. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004. Pp. viii + 295, preface, introduction, photographs, tables, bibliography, index. $50.00 cloth); Singing Story, Healing Drum: Shamans and Storytellers of Turkic Siberia. By Kira Van Deusen. (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, and Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004. Pp. xxvi + 205, introduction, acknowledgments, glossary, photographs, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $25.00 paper)

While healing, divination, and shamanistic modes of religiosity are closely intertwined in many cultures, academic work bridging these topics has been spotty. Works by authors who claim practical authority, such as Carlos Castañeda (1998 [1968]) and Michael Harner (1990 [1980]), have provoked controversies over appropriation, fieldwork ethics, and the possibility of outright fraud. Mircea Eliade's work on shamanism (1964 [1951]) claimed so consistent a cross-cultural pattern that some scholars now avoid the term "shaman" altogether. Many folklorists and anthropologists working on divination and shamanism sidestep experiential truth-claims by reporting only on the nuts and bolts of rituals or by turning to functionalism for an acceptable reason why rational people might do such things. By these lights, it is refreshing to see two recent books, Divination and Healing and Singing Story, Healing Drum, which, though unlike in tone and approach, attempt to discuss divination, shamanism, and healing without dismissing or ducking practitioners' claims that these things actually work.

Kira Van Deusen's Singing Story, Healing Drum centers on shamans and storytellers in the Siberian republics of Tuva and Khakassia. Van Deusen, a Canadian storyteller, is apparently a self-taught folklorist. Her interest in Siberian cultures, initially sparked by a book of folktales, led her to seek out a wealth of obscure ethnographic material, to interpret for visiting Tuvan performers at music and storytelling festivals, and eventually to travel six times to the region. She interviewed and observed dozens of shamans and other individuals familiar with local shamanistic traditions, and her book is rich with traditional stories, descriptions of rituals, and testimonials about the effectiveness of healings. Van Deusen introduces us to mirrors, pebbles, knucklebones, and shoulder blades as instruments of divination and vision generation, and to music as an integral part of these practices. Throughout the book, her love of stories is evident, and her comparison of the roles of storytellers and shamans is insightful. On the other hand, academic folklorists may be frustrated that her story texts are translated to emphasize narrative flow over poetics and performance, and that many of her passing remarks go un-footnoted.

At times the account feels romanticized, but Van Deusen does show she is aware that traditions vary and change. Even in Tuva and Khakassia, she finds tremendous variability in the methods and traditional knowledge of shamans. She documents changes that occurred during outside persecutions of the 1930s and 1940s and the later, subtler repressions of the Soviets, and makes wonderful use of Soviet-era ethnographic material. She interviewed several key scholars from the era, giving us insights into these Soviet ethnographers' strategies to protect shamans. Required to meet daily writing quotas, for example, they disguised their fieldwork about contemporary shamanism by setting all their accounts in the past. Van Deusen's attention to the influence of shifting politics on both shamanism and scholarship makes this book particularly useful for readers with an interest in Siberia's cultural transformation over the past century.

Divination and Healing: Potent Vision is a collection of eleven essays that examine therapeutic systems in an assortment of cultural settings. In the introduction, editors Michael Winkelman and Philip Peek provide a tremendously useful overview of the subject, discussing information channels used in divination and exploring some of the principal processes through which divination brings about healing. …

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